The Hepworth – at last, a good reason to go to Wakefield

Up until just over a week ago I had never in 7 years of living in Leeds found a good reason to visit Wakefield. Being told on moving up here not to bother because it was “full of fat lasses eating chips” and having a Kafkaesque afternoon trying to pick my father up from Kirkgate station haven’t helped. But, with the opening of the Hepworth Gallery and the enticements of a playground and creative activities for our 4 year old there, we visited at the weekend.

Not as forbidding as this looks!

First impressions were not great – a steely Yorkshire afternoon and a confusing jaunt round Wakefield’s one way system taking in a dreary sprawl of DIY warehouses and car dealerships to find that the Hepworth’s car park was inexplicably closed. The squat monolith of the building surrounded by scruffy industrial units and a low sky, plus the trepidation of going to see an art form that I don’t particularly understand.
However, all this was dispelled after a few minutes in the playground which apart from cheering up Oli also brought blue skies and sunshine and the chance to see the first of the art.
Something to see even in the playground
After this we felt more able to go and try to tackle the gallery itself. The place was buzzing and friendly. The room for the creative activities had large windows looking out at the entrance so we were led straight in by Oli, enticed by the colourful card, crayons, string and canes being deployed by several children to make intriguing models. The enthusiastic and helpful volunteer assistants gently suggested to Oli that he really needed to go round the gallery first to get some inspiration before starting on his craft work. Surprisingly, they didn’t need to do much persuading and we got to go round the gallery, following the children’s discovery trail guide. That guide is probably the best of its sort that I have ever seen. It was written in language that Oli could read and understand and soon he was leading us across the first gallery to Barbara Hepworth’s Spring and discussing with us whether it was more like an egg or a pebble (he dismissed the option of it being a head).
Looking round a bit further we got to see the visiting Eva Rothschild exhibition. Oli was fascinated by her Sunrise which appears to float in mid-gallery. Perhaps a bit too fascinated as he wanted to crawl underneath and to touch the streamers hanging off its lower part. Oh no, nightmare, time for a curator to shout at him and the hordes of art lovers to tut disapprovingly at the bad parents with an unruly ruffian child. Or not. Instead, the curator in that room smiled and said that everyone wanted to touch the streamers and that he hadn’t done any harm. Result, one small boy who has had a nice time rather than being told off (we did of course say to him that he ought not to touch anything else and he was good to his word). He was also sufficiently inspired to go back to the creative area to make his own interpretation.

OMB inspired by Eva Rothschild's Sunrise

Not a bad effort thanks to the help of the volunteers who managed to get him to describe the favourite thing he had seen in the gallery and to work with him to make his own version.
I won’t say too much more about the art itself as you need to visit it yourself and others have put it more eloquently (eg http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/may/29/hepworth-wakefield-eva-rothschild-jaume-plensa ). Suffice to say, there’s a lot to see, it is all surprisingly accessible and enjoyable even if you have no particular expertise in sculpture.

Even the corridors are interesting

A final mention should go to the café. It looked to be full to bursting with a long queue stretching out of the door. Yet, somehow, service was quick and friendly and there were enough tables to prevent the need for hovering over someone who looks like they might be finishing soon. The food itself was simple but of a high quality and filling – a small range of fresh sandwiches (cheese and spring onion, ham, tuna, sausage, bacon) and a single hot dish. All together, the Hepworth is a great gallery and has enough appeal to make a trip to Wakefield something to look forward to.

As I’d debated the regeneration value of £35m of modern architecture and sculpture with a friend from Wakefield recently (he thought it a waste of money that would be better spent on services local people would actually want) I think the fact that in a single attraction the city has made something which will attract people who would otherwise never have considered the city to be worth visiting unless they liked “fat lasses eating chips” shows how it will help regeneration. As the Observer article linked above says, combined with the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park (already a favourite of ours) and the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds there’s a critical mass of modern art now in the area.

Slightly more cheerful in the sun

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Freedom – Jonathan Frantzen

I loved “The Corrections” and “The Twenty Seventh City”. So, I was both excited and primed for disappointment by “Freedom”, particularly given the pages of glowing reviews at the front of my paperback edition. Too many or too enthusiastic reviews always strike me as the publisher trying a little too hard, but I suppose they must be helpful for the uninitiated reader trying to choose books while browsing a bookshop without any prior knowledge of what is there and who different authors are.

Thankfully, the book was if anything better than I could have expected. Frantzen is clearly a master in the biopic novel stretching across decades of a family’s life but somehow manages to combine this with the trick of being able to write the same novel over again without it becoming stale or predictable. Here he tells the story of Walter and Patty Berglund from childhood through to late middle-age, their friends, children, lovers and neighbours but lets the reader piece things together from a number of different angles.

The book starts with a third person account of the couple’s early married life and their building a home, family and neighbourhood as pioneer inner-city gentrifiers. This section ends with a tantalising glimpse, through the eyes of unfriendly neighbours of a disgrace that has befallen the family since leaving. Instead of moving to describe this, the book then steps back into an autobiography by Patty, written as part of her course of therapy, telling her story through childhood and college and her married life. So, clearly there’s more to her and more darkness than the annoyingly perfect housewife seen by her neighbours in the first section.

The novel builds forward in this way, giving the reader the perspective of just the family member or supporting character that had seemed underdeveloped. And then leaving them on a cliffhanger that Frantzen doesn’t hurry to resolve – what is the trouble that Joey has gotten into that is so bad as to make him open up to Walter after a lifetime of fighting his authority as his father? Slow down, you’ll have to wait until you’ve understood some other things first!

One development from Frantzen’s earlier novels is that Freedom has quite a lot of rather black humour. Not just in the therapy-fuelled detachment of Patty’s autobiography but more generally. There’s even a comedic thread to the 6 year exile of one of the characters that reflects the approach of the cartoon Over the Hedge to the building of large housing developments.

In the book club I have with my wife and a few of our neighbours we usually end off our discussions with thinking about who would play which character in the film adaptation. This can be difficult, particularly if we’ve chosen a non-fiction title and over the dozen or more books we’ve read it is surprising how many times Cate Blanchett has been given a role. Freedom would make an excellent film and I had William Macy playing Walter from early on in the book. Actually, come to think of it, Cate Blanchett would probably do very well for Patty. Strange, I’m not particularly fond of her as an actress but realise now why she’s so successful and how talented she is!

The Finkler Question – the question no-one was really asking

I know I ought to have known better and that I’ve already said in my profile that I usually prefer Booker losers to winners, but I recently read the 2010 winner, Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question”.

I can understand why the book won. It is well written and a great study in the inner lives of a couple of middle-aged men and their elderly former teacher. It is just that the whole thing was so introspective and, well, just unreal for anyone who isn’t wrestling with the concept of Jewish identity in early C21st London as seen from the perspective of a middle-aged man who is projecting his own insecurities onto a Jewish identity that he doesn’t have as a non-Jewish man.

I enjoyed the longlisted “1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” by David Mitchell rather more and am about to embark on Peter Carey’s “Parrot and Olivier in America” hoping to confirm that I prefer the losers.